Sunday, 25 August 2013

Musselburgh Congregational Church

All Age Family Service, Sunday 25th August 2013, 11am
Minister: Janice E Andrews (but service mostly led by a Sunday School teacher whose name I didn’t learn)

“We’re looking for Humpty Dumpty. Is he in the congregation?”

Not a traditional call to worship, but these were the first words uttered at today’s service at Musselburgh Congregational Church, part of the Congregational Federation (or possibly the Congregational Federation in Scotland, whose website is less easily navigable).

Not knowing much about congregationalism, I was a bit puzzled as to why there still are any congregational churches, having learned last week at the Augustine Church that the Scottish Congregational Church had joined forces with the United Reformed Church. But as is true of the many presbyterian schisms, you really need string and several extra dimensions to illustrate the interwoven histories of non-conformism. I’m not sure I’ve got the whole picture clear in my mind, but I did find an interesting article about the history of the tradition, from which I learnt that Scotland’s first female minister was a congregationalist ordained in 1928, forty-one years before the Church of Scotland caught up and let the girls join in.

Women and forty-one years are significant for this post, as I’ll explain anon, but first I have to go back to Humpty Dumpty for a minute.

The official call to worship was from Psalm 90, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place,” and Humpty was merely an example of the cuddly toys that the congregation had been making for the Olivebank children’s day care centre. But the whole service had a juvenile bent to it, because it was all focused on the Sunday School and the start of the new academic year.

What the usual service for grown-ups is like is something I would have to go back to find out, but this was all about Maths (cutting up bits of paper and counting the corners to show how God’s love grows the more you give it away, which very nearly resulted in the teacher falling off the dais while wielding a pair of scissors - but no children were harmed), English (“U” and “I” are required to make the alphabet, and other endeavours, complete), and Religious and Moral Education (remembering what to pray for using five fingers), all with audience participation. To all of this the minister then added her own address about putting on the full armour of God, and there were prayers and hymns (Mission Praise) with organ accompaniment, and scripture readings (Psalm 136:1-9 and Romans 12: 3-7).

But here’s what I noticed most. I was sitting beneath a Cradle Roll poster (tried to find an image online and couldn’t, but you know the one I mean – I think it may have been designed by Hilda Goldwag, or have I imagined that?) and noticed that I was just beside the list of baptisms from the year of my birth, 1972. Yes, folks, I’m forty-one, and I feel about a hundred, but that’s not the point. In that year there were fifteen baptisms in Musselburgh Congregational Church, which would be one every three or four weeks. In today’s congregation there were a dozen children in the Sunday School and another forty or so adults. This year, I’ve happened upon only one infant baptism, at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, and two adolescent baptisms at the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Dwindling, ever dwindling.

So, twelve kids and forty adults, or thereabouts. The typical attendance for most of this year’s churches has been “about fifty”, and that’s not just a lazy estimate; I always count. But here’s another odd thing ... even setting aside the fact that women tend to outlive men and that most congregations are full of elderly people, the predominance of women at today’s service was out of all proportion to what statistics might predict. I counted six men and one little boy, so they were outnumbered by almost nine to one. This has got to be the first time I’ve been in a 90 per cent female congregation this year, and I can’t account for it. In a traditional fishing community, you might have assumed the men were out at sea, but that’s not Musselburgh in the 21st century, so I’m stumped. Any theories?

Post-script, Monday 26 August 2013: I knew there had to be an image of the Cradle Roll poster online, and sure enough, here it is


  1. As most church attendees are older than you or I then in 20 years most of those churches will no longer exist. I suspect that there will be quite a number of new churches of new types to fill the gap, but the other denominations will have to go all ecumenical to cover the gaps in their coverage.

  2. It's a bleak prospect. As soon as those kids hit tertiary education I bet they'll be courted by slicker and apparently more "relevant" churches - Life, Destiny, Central or Hope! - whose very names evidence brand awareness and seductive marketing. I wonder if the dwindling denominations ever attempt to draw up an exit strategy, or are they just soldiering on and taking no thought for the morrow?

  3. Have a look at - and a wee look at how it began might surprise -

  4. Wow! A denomination I'd never heard about - ARP - if it counts as a denomination in its own right. I'll have to check out Grace Church. Thanks.

    1. I suppose what's interesting is that some within the long-standing denominations have taken on this modern missional approach that you'd possibly have expected from some of the 'relevant' churches you mention. Modern interface with a trendy website, social media to the fore, a hall - not a church, coffee and films, a creative partnership with America - and a church plant, not a parish.

  5. The East of Scotland Gospel Partnership (see my post on Niddrie Community Church) is a case in point, having its postal address c/o the Free Church College and supported by Charlotte Chapel, St Columba's Free and various Church of Scotland parishes. Maybe that's the way forward.